Energetic Turn

An interview with dance and choreography artist Meg Stuart who is receiving a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award during the Venice Biennale Danza 2018.

As one of the most influential dance and choreography artists since the 1990s, she is best known for her highly energetic pieces in which performers embody the boisterous longing for presence in relationship to specific surroundings. For example, in the jazzy Until Our Hearts Stop (2015), which was created in a kind of extended living room ambience, she departed from the discovery of a hidden trove of artworks in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment (many which were believed to have been looted and lost during the Nazi era) and then continued to question what we call love, what kind of magic we are searching for, and how this is connected to the freak inside us.

Meg Stuart grew up in California, studied in New York, lives with her son in Berlin and has her company Damaged Goods in Brussels, where her career began. Having previously been an associated artist of the Schauspielhaus Zürich (2000 to 2004) and Volksbühne in Berlin (2005 to 2010), in more recent years Stuart has entered a new work period, amongst others in collaboration with HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin’s theatre for the independent scene. Works like Sketches/Notebook (2013/2018) create intense temporary artistic communities and visualise the energetic networks developing in between the different aesthetic practices of the members. In this interview, we dig into the history of some works that are no longer on the stage and try to find ways to speak about feelings.

Celestial Sorrow  (2018) © Laura van Severen

Celestial Sorrow (2018) © Laura van Severen

Astrid Kaminski: Is it okay if we speak about feelings? We could frame it within your 2007 piece, Maybe Forever , in which you can undo everything in the future.

Meg Stuart: [ singing ] “Feelings, nothing more than feeeelings.” Okay, I’m ready.

Where did you wake up today and – hmm – how did you feel?

[ laughs ]I woke up very early in a hotel in Zurich, where I just performed Shown and Told with [theatre director and writer] Tim Etchells. But despite being early I felt quite rested and fresh. I thought about going for a walk on the lake and then I didn’t, so I went to catch my plane to Berlin and bought a book on being happy. My new love was invited to teach a workshop on happiness, so I wanted to feel connected by doing some research on happiness.

Did you gain new insights?

Nothing very new. But you can rewrite the experiences of your life, and shifting perspectives about any narrative – not the facts – make people happy. That made me think about jazz music that riffs on standards. You have these standards, these songs, that are very familiar, but the musicians keep looking for their potential – something that you would not see, that is dormant. They are not smashing the songs, but in a way expanding them. They are always rewriting, re-scripting, and collaging and in this way honouring the music, giving it a future momentum.

In one word, what is your art about?

I think it is about acceptance. [ laughs ] Acceptance that there is never one word to describe anything.

BLESSED © Laura van Severen

BLESSED © Laura van Severen

I want to dig into the past for a while. After your first European piece, Disfigure Study , in 1991, you immediately earned a name in dance. This piece is always cited, but I want to look at the one which came right after, in 1993, and was maybe more emotional. It’s called “No Longer Readymade”. It reminded me of Tino Seghal’s early quote about being interested in the Duchamp-tradition in the arts, of something that can change itself and simultaneously remain identical. What was your relation to Duchamp?

The title Disfigure Study says what it was – deconstructing the figure – and somehow this continued. There is a moment in No Longer Readymade which proposes that I don’t give the audience what they expect. I can’t dance for you anymore and there was a necessity to break this kind of contract of expectations, to say: Look at the trash in my pockets. This also is dance.

"A female interviewer asking a woman about her feelings! Please ask Tino Sehgal about his feelings!"

Turning the loo the other way around?

Yes, but also turning presence into absence by articulating gestures that trace the absence. Like holding a hand that is no longer there.

For one of the following pieces, No One is Watching , you wrote: “She always thought of her life as a movie no one is watching.” How would you put it today?

You are such a trickster! [ pauses ] I don’t know if I want to speak about being seen.

No Longer Readymade  © Jan Simoens

No Longer Readymade © Jan Simoens

I think the long silence you just gave is also an answer. Yet you will be receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale Danza 2018, which means someone is watching you.

I would have to go into what it means to be on a screen.

For Manifesta7 you made this film with the Agamben title “The Only Possible City” in which you are crying… But Okay, let’s speak about something nicer: What did you feel when you got to learned about the Golden Lion?

A female interviewer asking a woman about her feelings! Please ask Tino Sehgal about his feelings!

Let’s see.

I cried. It was announced the day before my premiere of Celestial Sorrow [at Kaaitheater, 2018], which I made in collaboration with the visual artist Jompet Kuswidananto. Through an installation of hundreds of lights, the work looks intensively at interior darkness and trauma, processed by voice performances by Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Gaëtan Rusquet, and Jule Flierl. So crying was not that inappropriate. Later we all took a yoga class and I continued crying. After this I made a drastic cut in the piece. It brought the whole thing together.

BLESSED © Chris van der Burght

BLESSED © Chris van der Burght

You are known for very intense rehearsal processes. You even formulated that making a piece is like living through a fiction together. To be in such intense contact with a group of people for several months must be very difficult. How do you deal with everything that comes up? What strategies help you bring the process to a controlled explosion?

I try not to obsess on the outcome too much and to take each rehearsal day as an aim in itself. The vocabulary we use in order to speak to each other and giving everyone space to get lost for a while are also quite important. What is particular about family-like proximity is that everybody has their own rhythm. You have to compose out of this polyrhythmic situation. The process also seems to have an identity or aura of its own, so people come with the idea that they are entering an intensive work; they bring it with them. And one more thing: I always work with the situation as such but also with a utopia. So there are always the questions of “What is there?” as well as “What could be?”

"Being meaningful is not a state to be reached; it is like a train."

I like one of the fundamental statements in Are we here yet? (2010), a book that reflects on your practice. You wrote: “In any given situation, what is going on in your head and what is going on in your body never exactly coincides.” This, you reason, confronts us with the impossibility of being totally present. But is it a wish to be fully present?

Being really present is now more problematic than when this book was made. I am not that fascinated with the distractions, blockages, and irritations of not arriving. I’m really interested in being present. But it demands an extreme trust that you don’t have to watch over your shoulder, that you are safe where you are. It demands being with your body, being with what is already there. Maybe it is more about being-with than about being-there.

Meg Stuart performing at MoMA (2013) © Cesar Vayssie

Meg Stuart performing at MoMA (2013) © Cesar Vayssie

This makes me think about the asymmetrical two stories house from your 2003 piece Visitors Only . Stage designer Anna Viebrock constructed it based on inspirations from Gordon Matta-Clark. Were the two-stories stores connected to altered states in between external realities and internal feelings?

The house was very playful with a lot of fantasy inferring with the movement. The architecture made it very clear that you went from one state into another. The asymmetric spaces and incomplete and destroyed rooms supported these shifts. The house also had some aspects of Alice in Wonderland with tiny doors and slanting walls. But anyway, it was not a psycho-analytical house with the subconscious under the floor and so forth. There was more about the relationship between the house and the body – the body not only as a means of expression, but also as a meeting point of atmospheres and energies, where things are copied, traced, remembered etc., where not only I speak but also others can speak through me.

Another influence and also collaborator was the video artist Gary Hill, with whom you worked for Splayed Mind Out (1997). This is said to be your first piece without concrete movement material. Does this mean that being moved replaces movement-instructions?

Not totally. I teach: Do a movement, let yourself be moved, and then imagine surrendering to your movement. Now be the agent of your movement, own it, and direct it. The way you shift your perception or consciousness between these two is what creates the dance, the way you allow things to happen and the way you shape them. The dance is in the shift, but what makes you move? I think it can be about feelings, yet “feeling” seems to be a very flat word, and it doesn’t say how we move. This is a question of how the person relates to the movement. I always used to say, “I’m interested when movement loses its meaning.”

Visitors Only  (2003) © Chris van der Burght

Visitors Only (2003) © Chris van der Burght

As Gary Hill writes, “And for everything, which is visible, there is a copy, of that which is hidden.” You don’t create meaning or states that can be named, but you nevertheless try to reach something meaningful. How do you know or feel when it is there?

If a movement loses its known meaning, then it creates space for something else to appear. It is the action of taking something out of its pattern that holds the meaning. But it’s not that I can say all I do is empty the gesture of its meaning. Sometimes it’s a matter of attention and choices, or you set something up and you want to knock it down again. Being meaningful is not a state to be reached; it is like a train. There was also a big shift in my work in recent years. I became less focussed on states and rather started to speak about energy. Does something have energy in itself or not? How can you trace energetic streams or vibrations, and how do you put that into form? The body is not a piano, you know?

"Simply spoken I supported the artists that Dercon had invited. And if somebody asked me I’ve always said that dance has a hard enough time being as underrepresented in the theatres as it is..."

In the last couple of years, some big names from the field of choreography moved into the museum with their work, and you also explored different spaces. For example, with the surveillance and heterotopia Highway 101 project from 2000, you went to visual art spaces, like a gallery in Rotterdam and the Centre Pompidou. However, you did not really keep going in this direction. Is, for you, stage still the place?

There were other things. [The choreographer and director of Musée de la Dance] Boris Charmatz invited me to perform solo works in MoMA and I also created Blanket Lady as part of the live exhibition Moments at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. But hard floors and little facilities for lighting are not really the ideal conditions for theatre work and often dancers are asked to perform under these conditions. Yet I am interested in observing how the museum context changes the choreography. So I went to see Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temorum two months ago at Volksbühne on the stage – I loved it completely – and then I went two days later and saw the same material as a performance installation.

Projecting Space © Laura van Severen

Projecting Space © Laura van Severen

Under Castorf you have been an associated artist of Volksbühne from 2005 to 2010. What did you feel about what was going wrong with choosing Chris Dercon for director and kicking him out again? Did all these aggressions bother you?

Of course everything after Castorf would have been very difficult. I have to say I did not go fully into what Volksbühne represents for whom and why they reacted the way they did. I’m also here, but I am not a German and this topic was obviously growing much bigger than the facts. Simply spoken I supported the artists that Dercon had invited. And if somebody asked me I’ve always said that dance has a hard enough time being as underrepresented in the theatres as it is and if somebody wants to program it and put it on a big stage: great. Meanwhile Castorf was not that interested in dance anymore. But I don’t want to take sides. I don’t think there is a need for attacking anything.

Since you like poetry I’m thinking of a verse by one of my favourite poets, Tracy K. Smith. It says: “One day I’ll touch the world with my bare hands, even if it burns.” Is there something you would not yet dare to touch?

This is hard to say. I have not touched opera yet, but do I want to? I don’t know. For sure I would love to make an improvised film in an intimate setting, inspired by John Cassavetes, with many brilliant dance artists in it. Maybe I can also say one thing about daring: What I like is the moment in art when vulnerability is not something uncomfortable but something shared.

ASTRID KAMINSKI is a critic and writer based in Berlin.

Meg Stuart © Edouard Jacquinet

Meg Stuart © Edouard Jacquinet